Mejo Okon | In Living Color

Mejo Okon’s paintings revel in the sun-drenched hues of the great Southwest

by Norman Kolpas

Mejo Okon, Golden Days, oil, 12 x 24.

Mejo Okon, Golden Days, oil, 12 x 24.

This story was featured in the July 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Stoic and proud she stands, her gaze fixed on the far horizon. Wisps of clouds in the vast sky behind her turn rose-hued in the late-afternoon sun. Stern yet beautiful, massive yet graceful, she inspires admiration mingled with a touch of respectful fear. There’s no denying that she’s the matriarch of her family.

WESTERN ICON [see page 56], a recent oil painting by Mejo Okon, depicts a figure that embodies the virtues of the American frontier. So heroic is its depiction that it seems almost incidental to note that “she” is not a pioneer woman but rather a longhorn cow.

“I’ve been enchanted with the West, its cowboys, and its animals since my childhood,” says Okon. The animals, especially, have always held particular appeal for her. “They’re really sweet and curious, and surprisingly approachable,” she says. In fact, she never ceases to be amazed by that approachability. “Whenever I stop along the road or go into a pasture where cows are grazing, the little ones and even the big ones will come up to me. They’re very endearing.”

At the age of 65 and advantageously based in Albuquerque, NM, Okon is delighted to be painting these willing western subjects every day in dramatic, realistic compositions that are as richly glowing as a classic Technicolor western movie.

Okon’s artistic journey did not begin in the West. She was born and spent her elementary school years in Indianapolis, IN, passing an idyllic childhood with her two sisters on a couple of acres just outside of town. Their next-door neighbor had a pony, “just a sweetheart,” as Okon remembers, who gamely tolerated their backyard circuses complete with bareback riding tricks. “We had several dogs, too, and the one sister close to my age and I dragged snakes and mice and birds and bunnies home.”

Young Mejo (pronounced MEE-joe, it’s a childhood nickname that stuck so firmly, Okon humorously refuses to divulge her given names) showed an early talent for drawing, and the art teacher at Holy Spirit Elementary recommended her for after-school art classes offered at the respected Herron School of Art+Design, now part of Indiana University. After her father, who worked for the United States Customs Service, was transferred to headquarters in Washington, DC, when Mejo was 12, she eventually earned artistic recognition at James Madison High School in Vienna, VA.
“I was probably known as the class artist,” Okon says, “and I got involved with some of the school theater productions, painting haystacks for Oklahoma! and making costumes, including horse and donkey heads, for Man of La Mancha.

When the time came for her to apply for higher education, says Okon, “I just wanted to go to art school, even though I didn’t know what being an artist would be like.” Her student portfolio landed her an eagerly anticipated spot at Syracuse University in upstate New York, but freshman year proved more than disappointing. “It was the time of abstract art,” she says, succinctly summing up the do-your-own-thing attitudes she encountered. “The first year was taught by grad students throwing buckets of paint down a snowy hill or lighting lighter fluid on the desktop. I was not impressed.” Even though her complaints to the dean, coupled with her already impressive portfolio, brought her a quick elevation to the sophomore class and some good drawing courses, she eventually returned to Indianapolis and the Herron School, winding up in their advertising art program.

While still a student there, Okon says she “heard through the grapevine that a local TV station was looking for courtroom sketch artists.” She stopped by CBS affiliate WTTV, was asked on the spot to do a quick sketch of the news team at work, and landed a part-time, on-call job that she continued to do in various locations as recently as 2011, when she covered the nationally reported trial in San Angelo, TX, of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs.

After graduating from Herron, Okon worked full time as a graphic designer at ad agencies in Indianapolis, working on campaigns for clients including RCA, Mayflower Van Lines, and the local McDonald’s. Then, at the age of 30, she decided to try life in the big city with a move to New York. She wound up working there for four years as a graphic designer and illustrator. “But a little voice kept telling me that there was something else I was supposed to be doing,” she recalls.

Still not quite sure what that “something else” was, she moved first to Ann Arbor, MI, working for two years as graphic designer for an architectural firm; then on to almost four years in Anchorage, AK, where she opened her own graphic-design studio and began doing some painting on the side; and then briefer stints back in Indiana, South Carolina, and finally back to Indianapolis where, at the age of 41, she went to work at a health-care firm.

That’s where, a few years later, she was set up on a date with John Welty, the father of a woman she worked with. “We went out for the first time at Thanksgiving and dated for three months,” she says with a smile. “John proposed that February, and we got married in March.” They recently celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary.

About two years into their marriage, with Welty recently retired from his job as an engineer with Ford, and with computer-aided design and the Internet beginning to take a bite out of Okon’s hand-drawn design work, the couple began thinking about a move out West. “We wanted to be somewhere with blue skies and nice weather,” she says. After a lot of research and a car trip to check out options, they finally settled on the town of San Angelo, TX. “It has three rivers, minor-league baseball, a university, two theaters, its own symphony, and even a small art club with a show every couple of months and a big fund-raiser once a year, called the Stribling Art Extravaganza,” says Okon, ticking off a long list of reasons the place appealed to the couple. “We moved there in December 2006. And that was the beginning, the unleashing. I started painting full time.”

She eventually rented a studio in town and began painting works inspired by art quilts she’d been making, as well as others depicting cactuses. One day in 2008, a fellow artist who lived outside of town invited her to see the cows that a renter was grazing on her property. “I started taking pictures of them,” Okon says, and those soon led to more photos at ranches and rodeos. Such images became the reference work for her first western-themed paintings. The following year, she felt her portfolio was good enough to show seriously, and she sent it to Southwest Art. “I got chosen to be in the ‘21 Over 31’ article in the November 2009 issue,” she says. “That certainly was a huge validation, coming from somebody outside of my family and immediate area.” Significant representation soon followed, with Okon’s works now on view at respected galleries in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Living in Albuquerque since 2015, Okon finds herself resolutely on the path that little voice had been urging her to seek for years. Camera and sketchbook in tow, she seeks out her subjects across the Southwest, driving country back roads and “inviting myself to ranches.” Back home in the spacious studio Welty helped her convert from a bedroom, she’ll upload the photos to her computer and, as she puts it, “take the pictures apart, playing in Photoshop to come up with my compositions.” Then, on a canvas that she first brushes with “a beautiful, rich, transparent yellow color to give it a glow,” she lightly draws in the figures with a sharp No. 2 pencil before gradually building up layer after layer of rich, translucent color using a dry brush. In any given month she may complete three or four works, switching from one to another as she allows time for each layer of oil paint to dry. The results of this careful process are paintings that seem luminous and alive, such as GOLDEN DAYS [see page 52], her double portrait of a white longhorn cow and her calf at sunset, which is headed to the Women Artists of the West Annual Exhibition in Bartlesville, OK, in September.

That recent work suggests a subtle shift in direction for Okon, including as it does a generous sweep of grassy plains and electric-blue sky. “In the beginning, with my graphics background, my paintings were stark and bold, with a plain graphic sky,” she says. “Now I want to get more involved with landscapes in my paintings.” The mesas, desert plains, and mountains of northern New Mexico offer a whole new range of subject matter. So, too, do the native tribes of the Southwest. “I just went to a gathering of Indian nations, and the photos I took there might turn into some paintings,” she adds.

Most of all, though, the light in New Mexico excites her, especially its effect on the rich colors she loves to use. She sums it up simply: “Since moving here, I’m eager to go out and just scoop up all those colors.”

Mountain Trails Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Texas Treasures Fine Art Gallery, Boerne, TX; Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, AZ;

This story was featured in the July 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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